Combating impunity: transitional justice in the aftermath of mass atrocities.

Author:Pavon, Beatriz

Sadly, recent history has given us many examples of large-scale human rights abuses. The lessons of history have also shown that, in a necessary attempt at reconciliation with the past, different societies needed to create diverse formulas to overcome the extraordinary devastation they endured in the aftermath of mass atrocities.


Since the Second World War, the fight against impunity has become a universal cause, especially after major violations of human rights have taken place. Despite calls for justice and accountability, government officials often choose to grant amnesty to individuals responsible for appalling human rights violations, on the grounds that only this would help their society secure a stable transition from conflict to peace.

These difficult lessons from the past were also the subject of a panel discussion, "Truth, Justice and Accountability: Principles and Practice for Combating Impunity", held at United Nations Headquarters in New York in June 2004. Organized by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in cooperation with the International Centre for Transitional Justice (ICTJ), the panel discussion, moderated by Deputy Director Craig Mokhiber of the OHCHR New York Office, included Juan Mendez, Director of ICTJ, and Diane Orentlicher, Professor of International Law at American University. The participants stated that while some countries would be able to effectively account for large-scale abuses, some needed assistance from the international community to conduct prosecutions and establish truth-finding mechanisms. They emphasized that policies of justice needed to be based upon widespread consultations with civil society groups. Within this framework, the different approaches to combat impunity, such as the commissions of inquiry, criminal prosecutions or reparations to the victims, were certainly valuable in leading towards dialogue, healing and reconciliation within a society affected by mass human rights violations.

"In recent years, one of the most striking developments [in international law] has been the abrogation of amnesties and the lifting of other restrictions, including official immunities, that were designed to block prosecutions of certain crimes", said Ms. Orentlicher, the author of an independent study commissioned by Secretary-General Kofi Annan titled "Best Practices to Assist States in Strengthening Their Domestic Capacity to Combat All Aspects of Impunity"...

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